Killing Fields, The (1984): Roland Joffe’s Oscar-Winning Political Melodrama, Starring Sam Waterston

Roland Joffe’s political drama, The Killing Fields, was based on Sydney Schanberg’s 1980 New York Times Magazine article, “The Death and Life of Dith Pran.”

The film recounts in broadly fictionalized and conventionally melodramatic, but  emotionally engaging mode the political situation in Cambodia during its civil war, centering on the relationship between the New York Times reporter Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and his Cambodian translator and friend Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor), particularly after the latter falls into the hands of the brutal Khmer Rouge.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

The tale begins in May 1973, in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, when the national army wages a civil war with the communist Khmer Rouge group, a result of the Vietnam War spilling over Cambodia.

Dith Pran, a Cambodian journalist and interpreter for The New York Times, awaits the arrival of reporter Sydney Schanberg at the airport, but leaves suddenly. Schanberg takes a cab to his hotel where he meets up with Al Rockoff.

When Pran meets Schanberg, he tells him that an incident has occurred in Neak Leung, wheere American B-52 has bombed the town.  Going there, Schanberg and Pran are arrested when they try to photograph the execution of Khmer Rouge operatives.

Two years later, in 1975, the Phnom Penh embassies are evacuated in anticipation of the arrival of the Khmer Rouge. Schanberg secures evacuation for Pran, his wife and four children. However, Pran insists on staying behind to help Schanberg. The Khmer Rouge move into the capital, and Pran, unharmed because he is Cambodian civilian, negotiates to spare his friends’ lives. They don’t leave Phnom Penh, instead retreating to the French embassy.

Several months after returning to New York, Schanberg conducts personal campaign to locate Pran; he writes letters to charities and is in contact with Pran’s family in San Francisco. In Cambodia, Pran has become forced laborer under the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” policy, a return to the agrarian ways of the past.

In the final chapter, Pran escapes from prison and goes through the jungle alone until he finds a Red Cross camp near the border of Thailand.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Schanberg gets news that Pran is alive and safe, and he travels to the camp to be reunited with Pran. He asks Pran for forgiveness, to which Pran replies quietly with a smile, “Nothing to forgive, Sydney.”

Haing S. Ngor, who plays Pran, was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and the labor camps; prior to that he was a doctor in Phnom Penh. In 1975, Ngor was one of millions forced to move from the city to labor camps, where he spent four years before fleeing to Thailand.

Haing, who had never acted before, was spotted by the film’s casting director, Pat Golden, at a wedding in Los Angeles.  He said in an interview: “I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under Communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect.” Ngor became one of two non-professional actors to win an acting Oscar; the other being Harold Russell for the 1946 The Best Years of Our Lives.

Driven by a blend of anger and empathy, The Killing Fields popularized for viewers a conflict through a powerful tale of friendship between two men. The narrative, which is also effective as a thriller, pays attention to such details as the constant fear, the eagerly waiting around for fake passports, the desperation of men separated from their families, the irrational burst of violence in which innocent children and civilian are ruthlessly killed, with their bodies piling up without the benefit of decent burials.

Sam Waterston as Sydney Schanberg
Haing S. Ngor as Dith Pran
John Malkovich as Al Rockoff
Julian Sands as Jon Swain
Craig T. Nelson as Military Attache
Spalding Gray as U.S. Consul
Bill Paterson as Dr MacEntire
Athol Fugard as Dr Sundesval
Graham Kennedy as Dougal
Patrick Malahide as Morgan
Nell Campbell as Beth
Joanna Merlin as Schanberg’s Sister

Oscar Context:

The movie was nominated for seven awards and won three, including a citation for Chris Menges’s s exhilarating cinematography.

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by David Puttnam

Director: Ronald Jaffe

Screenplay (Adapted): Bruce Robinson

Actor: Sam Waterston

Supporting Actor: Haing S. Ngor

Cinematography: Chris Menges

Film Editing: Jim Clark

Oscar Awards: 3

Supporting Actor


Film Editing

Oscar Context

In 1984, the big Oscar winners was the musical “Amadeus,” which won Best Picture, Director for Milos Forman, Actor for F. Murray Abraham, Adapted Screenplay for Peter Shaffer, and other awards. Another British nominee was David Lean’s last epic, “A Passage to India,” an adaptation of E. M. Forster’s celebrated novel, was nominated for eleven awards, though won only two.